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Congressional tax proposals risk postponing federal mineral checks that go to Wyoming

Tax bills passing through the U.S. Congress right now could delay millions of dollars in mineral royalty payments to Wyoming.

It wouldn’t be the first time some of the money has been withheld. The federal government has a history of keeping mineral royalties owed to Wyoming, a money-caching consequence in recent years of Congress over spending or failing to pass a budget.

And that risk has cropped up again. Either tax bill would add more than $1 trillion to the federal deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. If Congress can’t make up that money elsewhere, it initiates sequestration. That could mean a year delay to some or part of Wyoming’s 48 percent share of federal mineral royalties and lease income.

Wyoming has its own $770 million two-year deficit to contend with, a result of the downturn in key energy industries. The missing income would hit the state’s K-12 school purses particularly hard.

Some say the state is not in a position to shrug off a reduction in anticipated federal revenue. Wyoming’s delegation to Washington, on the other hand, insists that the mineral revenue is safe. If their budget bill causes sequestration, they say they have means to fight it. They’ve done it before.

Bending the rules

If Congress wants to pass a budget bill similar to what they’ve proposed without sequestration measures, it can pass accompanying legislation that addresses the deficit increase, the Congressional Budget Office wrote in a Nov. 13 letter to the House.

Or, it can bend its rules.

“Congress made the … law and Congress can also waive its requirements,” said Sen. Mike Enzi’s spokesman Max D’Onofrio in an email. “Congress has done it before on a bipartisan basis many times.”

Enzi has made tax reform a top priority, and he would fight any cuts in mineral payments that the budget proposal instigates, according to his spokesman.

Rep. Liz Cheney and Sen. John Barrasso’s spokeswomen were equally adamant that the mineral revenue would come back to the state.

“Congressman Cheney will always fight to protect Wyoming’s rightful share of mineral revenues,” said spokeswoman Maddy Weast, via email.

She also took issue with the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates. They don’t account for increased revenue that will be achieved by this tax reform, she argued.

But those estimates from the Congressional Budget Office are what counts when it comes to sequestration, according to the Pay As You Go Act, a budgeting restriction from the early ‘90s that was reinstated in 2010.

The CBO decides if sequestration is needed and determines the percentages that can be sequestered from a host of programs. The president is then required to sign off on that sequestration.

Gov. Matt Mead’s spokesman David Bush said it’s premature to speculate on potential cuts.

“[The governor] does not want to see reductions in federal mineral revenue, is following the tax bills, and will work with our Congressional Delegation to do what is best for Wyoming,” he said.

Heard it all before

This wouldn’t be the first time Wyoming’s been hit by sequestration. In fact, the state is dealing with it right now. In the last quarter, the state missed out on about $3 million a month.

But the state is also currently being paid back money that was withheld the previous year thanks to the Wyoming delegation’s work, Don Richards, a financial staffer with the Legislative Services Office.

It’s evened out so far, he said.

A potential risk in the sequestration story is if there is a significant increase in the percentage of the mineral payments that the feds holds onto.

That withheld portion can add up to a lot of money. Wyoming’s total federal mineral income for fiscal year 2017 was about $700 million. Sequestration hovers around 7 percent of that.

Between October 2016 and June, the feds withheld about $43 million in mineral payments, said Wyoming State Treasurer Mark Gordon.

Similar Congressional actions hit Wyoming’s mineral payments in 2013, due to the Budget Control Act, a piece of legislation devised to avoid hitting the debt-ceiling when negotiations between the White House and Congress stalled out. Wyoming was informed it would lose about $10 million in royalty payments every month due to sequestration, adding up to $53 million in withheld payments.

The potential of more sequestration down the line isn’t crippling, Gordon said. Wyoming has weathered this before and it can again, he added.

But that’s not to say cuts are insignificant for the state as it faces tough fiscal times, he said.

“In the context of a $3 billion budget, they don’t seem substantial. But in the context of a program, they can make the difference,” he said. “Every dollar counts.”

As state ponders computer science, Kelly Walsh is keystrokes ahead

As Wyoming lawmakers and education officials debated adding computer science to schools, a Kelly Walsh High School counselor thought of the two women who were miles of code ahead of the curve.

“I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a great program that’s been here for years and years and years!’” Marial Choma said last week.

She turned somewhat apologetically to Rebecca Underwood, who has been teaching computer science at the school for 30 years.

“Sorry, but it has been. Not to date you, but.”

Underwood and her fellow instructor Becky Byer are the computer science teachers at the school. Underwood taught Byer in years past, and both write code for Texas Instruments, the technology giant known to many students for its brick-length calculators.

Notably — obviously — they’re also both women in a field that, at least nationally, is male-dominated. They said that’s helped bring more female students into their classes, which have come a long way since Underwood started.

“When I first started, we taught Apple Basic, believe it or not,” she said, as a reporter nodded and pretended to understand. “That was the language. We were on Apple IIs and we taught Fortran and Pascal.”

As programming advanced, the teachers adapted, adding Java and other languages.

Byer is teaching several computer science classes as Underwood readies for retirement (both teach math classes, as well). They’ve had students put games on the iTunes Store, create virtual reality programs and go on to work for Microsoft.

Underwood has been an advocate for computer science in Wyoming, she said. Not only does it teach problem-solving skills, but it can click for some students who otherwise struggle. She’s reached out to lawmakers, urging them to push it more in schools.

Last week, the Joint Interim Education Committee took steps to make that happen. Lawmakers advanced a bill that would allow computer science to take the spot of a science credit for graduation requirements, or a math credit for the Hathaway Scholarship.

Underwood said she was happy that the state is moving forward with computer science but expressed concerned about the graduation requirement.

“You’re looking at one more thing that kids have to do, to pass, to go on,” she said.

She said that another obstacle is districts having enough teachers certified to teach the courses they may have to start offering. She said she wasn’t certified when she started, and it may be an impediment to finding qualified teachers.

Still, she and Byer praised the benefits of computer science and its ability to teach students the benefits of problem solving.

“We had four kids I know graduate from the University of Wyoming last year with computer science degrees that all make more than we do now,” Underwood said, laughing. “But they came in ahead.”

Such is the pitch by computer science proponents: Being able to code is going to be a much-needed skill as the economy hurtles into the future.

“I want to be an engineer, and in the engineering field, programming is becoming a really big topic ... so I figured to get a head start, I should probably start now,” said Kelly Walsh senior Abi Schoup, who sat outside of one of Byer’s classes last week.

Senior Devin Brewer said he wanted to work with artificial intelligence in the future. He had rebuilt the classic game “Space Invaders” and turned it into an iPhone app.

Two other programming students — senior Madi Czellecz and junior Grace Ritchie — didn’t plan on going into a programming field. When asked the worst question in the world — what do you want to do with your lives — Ritchie said she was interested in optometry, and Czellecz had thought about athletic training and becoming a sonographer.

Still, they all said that regardless of what they do, what they’ve learned in programming will benefit them going forward.

“The world’s going to tech. Everything’s turning to technology,” Schroup said. “So having even a basic knowledge of this stuff, it will be beneficial for almost any career you go into.”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

A Wold oil drilling rig operates outside of Rolling Hills.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Wyoming Cowboys linebacker Logan Wilson (30) brings down Fresno State Bulldogs running back Jordan Mims (22) during their game at War Memorial Stadium Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.